When Idols Decide to Act: A Couch Kimchi Roundtable

K-Pop idols have a notoriously short shelf life. So not long after their debuts, many try to carve alternate careers to fall back on once they get too old to shake their tushes in choreographed dance moves. Today, the Couch Kimchi team will be talking about idols that act.

Clockwatcher: This topic is particularly interesting to me because I’m not into K-Pop at all, and I’m usually introduced to these idols through dramas. For example, I knew people like Yoon Eun Hye and Eugene as actors first.

Tessieroo: I’m not overly familiar with K-Pop either, but I can sometimes pick out which one is the idol when press conferences are held for new dramas. LOL. Then, I end up learning through Google that they’re a member of X or Y group. Strangely enough, it sometimes inspires me to listen to that group’s music.

Rinchan: I’ve stumbled upon a lot of K-Pop idols that way, but the ignorance is nice because when they act, I don’t have to be too wary of the stigma surrounding them.

Goodange: When it comes to K-Pop, I’m also green, and like Clock, initially, I found out about a star’s pop idol status after having seen his/her drama. That’s not the case now since I’m a veteran K-ent viewer, but as a K-Drama fan, I have some mixed feelings about their casting in some roles. When I know a much more qualified actor can do a better job, I do wave that imaginary pitchfork. When it was announced that YoonA would be playing the lead role in the Korean remake of “Nodame Cantabile,” I was in an uproar along with the majority.

Tessieroo: There are a few shining hopefuls. Lee Joon comes to my mind straight away because of his announcement this week to concentrate on acting. I might be alone in this, but I think it’s an excellent decision because as an actor, he’s amazing.

Clockwatcher: I also think our opinion will differ from K-Pop fans who love idol actors because they get to see their biases in a different avenue.



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Clockwatcher: Producers cast idols because they have a built-in audience while netizens oppose this because they don’t feel many idols have earned their stripes. They think it’s particularly unfair to actors who work hard for years, paying their dues to get lead roles while idols with far less talent jump the queue.

Rinchan: Their resentment is similar to the way they resent nakasans. They hate the nepotism involved. They find it quite disrespectful to professional actors when they are passed over for roles in favor of idols who are deemed less suited. It is even more upsetting when they see a genuinely talented actor playing second fiddle to someone who can’t act half as well.

Goodange: I don’t have an issue with idols venturing into the acting world; they’re just diversifying their entertainment career. Prior to her breakthrough role in “Goong,” Yoon Eun Hye probably had two or three acting gigs that were nothing to write home about. When she was initially cast in “Goong,” she received a lot of hate, but in the end, she emerged winsome and had everybody’s respect. Once she stopped being an idol, she never looked back and focused solely on being a good actress. Given that precedent, I try to be openminded, but I do feel I’m being a hypocrite. I can be one of those angry netizens. Many times I’ve reflexively groaned when an idol has been cast in a lead role, and it’s his/her first acting project. I guess I prefer that the idols work their way up just like any regular actor. Then again, it’s the reality of the business. Some people just get ahead because of an it factor or popularity. Others get their big break in a matter of time, while others have to wait for that right role to be noticed. Ugh, my thoughts are a mess. LOL. Like I said, I have mixed feelings.


Tessieroo: I’ve felt some of that anger or disbelief myself when an idol is cast for the lead over many young, gifted actors! It’s frustrating, but then, one of two things happens: They’re good, which shocks everyone, or they’re so horrible that people feel justified in being against idols getting prime roles. I’ve seen both happen, which makes me wonder if a drama’s production team is just taking a gamble (that may or may not pay off) or they don’t really care.

Clockwatcher: I think part of the anger also stems from seeing talented actors with fewer fans or less powerful agencies relegated to second lead roles while idols with little to no experience are the main lead.



Clockwatcher: Any company other than Disney that casts Justin Bieber will get mocked. Justin Timberlake has been in some successful movies, but he still gets a lot of flak, and rightly so because he sucks. I think anyone who starts off in the teenybopper market gets mocked when they attempt to transition out of that, except for Disney stars, who usually start off on a television show and then, decide they want a music career. So basically, if we remove Disney from the equation, the music and acting industries in Hollywood are pretty separate, and musicians find it a lot harder to get cast for significant roles. I think the stigma is a lot worse in Hollywood and most musicians—including non-idols—who attempt to transition into a serious acting role have to work their way up. Instead of thinking that the idol will bring in some attention, many worry that he/she might be detrimental to the overall quality of the work.

Goodange: LOL. With all due respect to Justin Timberlake, he could be better. *Covers head from JT fans.*

Anyway, unless it’s a Hollywood film about music or singing groups, like “Dreamgirls,” it does seem that casting musicians/singers as the main attraction is given cautious consideration by the production outfits and studios.

Clockwatcher: But we have had a few idols who’ve made it, like the Walhberg brothers. Other artists who’ve gone on to successful acting careers include Will Smith, Harry Connick Jr., Barbra Streisand, and Queen Latifah.

Tessieroo: Will Smith? Oh, that’s right. He was a rapper for a short time. LOL.

Clockwatcher: “Summertime,” “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It”? Yep, he debuted as The Fresh Prince and was releasing hits even after his acting career took off.

Goodange: Barbra Streisand’s career started in an era when artists were still very much valued for being a well-rounded performer and Hollywood musicals still had a consistently strong presence. The studio system and music industry in the 60s are also different now, so, I’m not sure she counts as a comparative example to contemporary K-pop idols who act. However, what I’ve noticed about the others Clock mentioned is that when they first started acting, they weren’t rewarded with the headline role in a major movie project. Will Smith, Queen Latifah, and a few others had started out in supporting roles or as leads in 30-minute TV sitcoms, so, they’ve had time to build the audience’s trust in their abilities. “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” had some serious storylines that allowed Will Smith to prove his ability to be a dramatic actor.

Rinchan: It’s pretty odd when you think about it, but there are some Hollywood actors that can sing and even do broadway musicals between movie gigs. However, you don’t really see them coming out with albums, as opposed to K-ent’s Lee Min Ho and Jang Geun Suk. Granted idols do receive acting classes, but it is not taken as extensively as full time actors. I feel there are some who believe they can simply rely on their pretty faces, but there are others who actually try.


Tessieroo: There are a few K-actors who also do musical productions. Ji Chang Wook has done stage musicals, such as “Jack The Ripper,” “Those Days,” and “Thrill Me,” which also starred Kang Ha Neul; however, most people aren’t aware of that.

Was I the only one shocked to learn Lee Minho sings? I had no idea! I knew Jang Geun Suk did because of his participation in drama OSTs.

Rinchan: Lee Min Ho actually did an OST for “Boys Over Flowers,” but Jang Geun Suk definitely has more albums than him.

By the way, Jo Jung Seok also did musicals, and his acting quality is high. I think doing musicals adds a richness to one’s acting skills. With his looks, Ji Chang Wook could have been an idol, but I am glad he is an actor. He produces a hefty range of emotions.

Goodange: Actually, Scarlett Johansson came out with an album six years ago. She covered Tom Waits’ songs and collaborated with acclaimed musicians, but she received as much gripe as praise for her effort. (Zooey Deschanel, on one hand, has had nothing but accolades for being part of She & Him.) I don’t mean to be a know-it-all, but my point is that whenever Hollywood actors step out of their bubble and try out a music career, they’re also not exempt from criticisms. I think the public’s immediate reaction is doubt; a lot of the audience prefers a singer or actor to just stick to one craft. As Clock noted earlier, the distinction between the music industry and the acting world is clear in Hollywood. By comparison, a famous actor like Lee Min Ho comes out with an album, and the guy gets nothing but heaps of love and support. LOL.

Clockwatcher: Building on Angie’s point … Hollywood actors get ragged on when they undertake a musical endeavor. Back in the day, both Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis attempted music careers and flopped big time. I think few get to have respectable careers like Jennifer Lopez, and that’s because she started off as a dancer and her breakout movie was “Selena,” which made many think of her as a singer. Jamie Foxx needed to do “Ray” before he could get a respectable singing career. You have actors like Kevin Bacon and Jared Leto who tour with their bands but few make it big. I think that in Hollywood, it’s actually easier for a singer to transition into acting than the other way around.

Goodange: True. As our conversation gets deeper, now that we think about it, it does seem that in Hollywood, singers are cut a bit more slack for acting, like Adam Levine in “Begin Again” or Taylor Swift in “Valentine’s Day.” Maybe it’s because they’re in supporting roles and/or part of an ensemble cast, and they don’t have the main responsibility of making or breaking the project.

Rinchan: Right! It might have to do with them playing supporting roles. If idols want to test the waters in acting, that’s generally a good way to start. If they suck, they might not catch too much flack, but if they are good, they get noticed.

I agree that there is a more defined separation between the acting and music worlds. Usually, people want their celebrities to stay in their niche, and Jamie Foxx is a good example because he often displayed his musical talents on the sitcom “The Jamie Foxx Show,” but “Ray” gave him the fame and reach. It also didn’t hurt that he produced songs with well-known rappers like Kanye West and Ludacris. Even JLO’s first album was done with Sony Entertainment; having a high-end production team goes a long way. LOL. It probably is easier to transition into acting because it also requires less packaging.



Goodange: What do you guys think of idols trying out a career in musical theater? I don’t follow K-Pop, so I don’t know if there’s as much doubt thrown their way when news of this comes out compared to scoring a TV or film gig.

Rinchan: I think it would actually be good for them. Their strength should technically be singing, but theater would allow them to work on their stage presence. There are a few idols that can pull off certain emotions or create an aura, but you have to be able to do this on the acting stage. The stage presence of an actor and that of a singer are totally different because of the skills being showcased. A singer can use his song and quite often, great choreography, but an actor can’t always rely on something of that nature. Actors have to make the audience believe they are someone else, allowing for a fluidity in the storytelling. My only issue is the mere fact that sometimes, idols can use a drama as a training ground, which should be a no-no. Acting in different dramas can allow them to garner experience and learn from their acting sunbaes, but the core rehearsal and honing of skills should be done off the screen.

Goodange: Very good point. Idols aren’t veering off by much when they parlay their K-Pop training into a gig in a stage musical. Because there aren’t cameras to zoom in on their faces and the special effects aren’t usually computer generated, the acting on stage is more heightened whereas on TV or film, it’s ideal to keep it nuanced and balanced. So, the idols’ K-Pop abilities go well with musical stage productions.

Clockwatcher: Plus I think the average audience thinks it makes sense for them to do musicals, and it’s considered less greedy than going for a lead role in a Wednesday-Thursday drama.



Clockwatcher: I think we’re getting a little too saturated with idol actors. You’re hard-pressed to find any drama without an idol in a significant role.

Rinchan: And if they are not in a significant role, they are in minor ones. LOL. There seems to be a void being filled by idol actors, because sometimes, it feels like our regular actors are MIA. I am not sure if it’s because some are on hiatus, busy with other projects, or directors are simply passing them over for idols. It’s as if the younger actors in Korea are absent. There are idols who came into the industry wanting to be actors like MBLAQ’s Lee Joon.

Goodange: It depends on the artists’ agency, too. I think some agencies have made it easy for idols to be more flexible with their career options. You’ve got record labels-cum-talent agencies who aren’t solely about creating music and polishing up their performers, but they’re also trying their hand at producing dramas or reality programs. I don’t think it was always this way in the world of K-ent.

I don’t mind aspiring actors using a music career as a stepping stone for an acting one. Lee Joon is serious about his decision, so, more power to him, and without the distraction of idol group activities, maybe he can channel all his focus on acting lessons.

Tessieroo: I do wonder how many of these idols consider acting lessons?

Clockwatcher: I don’t know if they do, but many definitely should. I’m also with Rinchan about them using dramas as a training ground. No one expects an entry-level employee to be an expert, which is also why without nepotism or connections, an inexperienced person with a lot of room to grow isn’t made the managing director. A lot of idol actors are terrible in lead or second lead roles, but their fans will defend them saying that they have improved. However, people should not be cast in roles because they’ve improved; they should be cast because they can do justice to the role.

Goodange: I think acting lessons can go a long way. SM Entertainment apparently trains its talents in acting, not just in singing and dancing, and with their respective roles in “Reply 1994” and “Prime Minister and I,” there have been broad positive reactions to Go Ara‘s and YoonA’s acting; they’ve gotten so much better. So, maybe the company’s finally doing something right in terms of training? Ultimately, however, I do agree that idols should be cast not because they’ve improved, but because the role deserves the best.

I also think the write-ups from the media downplay the idols’ inexperience or minimal talent by playing up their work ethic behind the scenes. So at the very least, viewers could give them credit for that. However, they can pour honey and drizzle sugar all over news of their hard work, and sometimes in the end, the acting just doesn’t meet the standard.



Rinchan: Most likely the trend will continue. Getting idols into dramas is a great PR move. Think about it: There are many like us who aren’t thoroughly submerged in the K-Pop world, but we’ve been indirectly exposed to it when we see these people on screen. For example, Dohee catapulted into fame after her appearance in “Reply 1994.” Because of it, I learned about her group, Tiny G, and to this day, she is getting more exposure and landing on more shows. We also can’t forget that if there is a big entertainment company investing in the show, you will see them drop one or two of their idols in it.

Goodange: Oh yeah. I don’t think it’s a trend that’ll go away even with scandals inundating the K-Pop world, but I also believe a lot of the viewing public will remain opinionated and skeptical about idols grabbing major acting roles, especially as more newcomers with legitimate acting talent infiltrate the film and drama industries.

Tessieroo: I agree, Ange. It infuriates me when an idol is cast for something that I know a genuinely gifted actor would be perfect for. I’m always willing to give the idol a chance, but when it turns out badly, it makes me even more angry thinking of the “what-ifs.”

A few have surprised me though, like A Pink’s Jung Eun Ji. I discovered her when she appeared in “That Winter, The Wind Blows.” I’ve since been blown away by her singing. I think the trend will continue as long as rare finds like Lee Joon or Eun Ji happen, but then, there are the questionable ones, like Suzy or Jessica. And what about the inconsistent ones, like L from Infinite? He’s good in one drama (“Shut Up: Flower Boy Band“) but not so much in another (“My Lovely Girl“). That brings me right back to the comfort level. If they’re comfortable with a production team or their costars, then they’re acting’s good; otherwise, it’s horrible. These are only my opinions.


Goodange: Yup, if you’re going to be an actor, you have to be consistently good, regardless of with whom you’re working or your comfort level.

Rinchan: I notice some idols get better in acting when there are more veterans than just fellow idols on a show.

Clockwatcher: There are some dramas that call for idol actors, like “Dream High” and “Monstar.” “Reply 1997” didn’t have much singing, but having idols kind of fit with the theme of the drama. Lee Joon is praised a lot, but there are lots of actors who are just as talented as he is but don’t get the opportunity to shine because they don’t have that added fame from being in an idol group. So, I think the trend will definitely continue because producers like the extra attention they get from casting idols, but it also lessens the opportunities available to non-idol actors. Having said that, the impatient international viewers benefit from idols in dramas because those shows normally get licensed by at least one of the streaming sites and subbed really quickly. There’s usually no worry that it won’t be picked up if it stars at least one idol.



Rinchan: I guess it depends on what you mean by success. If you mean idols that have fully transitioned into their acting roles, then the aforementioned Eugene and Yoon Eun Hye are definitely members of that set. If you mean a Hollywood debut, then Rain hands down. I remember when I first watched “Ninja Assassin,” I didn’t know about him or K-ent, but he was hard to ignore. Recently, he was in the film “The Prince.” He wasn’t a lead, but it wasn’t bad when we consider the language barrier. However, I am still stuck on the fact that he calls 50 Cent hyung. ROFL.

Tessieroo: I have to throw in the ones I’ve already mentioned—Lee Joon and Eun Ji. There’s also Lee Seung Gi, and I know there are more. I’m not watching “My Spring Day,” but I’ve heard Sooyoung is doing well. I also like Seo Kang Joon, but were any of you even aware that he’s from a group called 5urprise? They’re supposedly releasing their first album late this year, so, they haven’t debuted yet. That makes my question a bit unfair, huh? *Kekeke*

Rinchan: I’ve heard about 5urprise but haven’t seen much else, and how could I fail to mention Lee Seung Gi! He’ll probably be hailed as the nation’s MC in the future. Sooyoung’s acting has really matured. I first saw her in “Cyrano Agency” and liked her there, but her role in “My Spring Day” has more depth, which she is handling well.

Clockwatcher: I heard of 5urprise because it’s an actor-idol group. I still don’t know what that means. I find the Korean entertainment industry confusing with their trainee period and debuting groups with 13 members.

Eric of Shinhwa isn’t as popular these days, but I think he’s an idol who’s well regarded as an actor. I first saw him in “Phoenix” and thought he did a good job there. I think an idol has succeeded when the average viewer doesn’t roll her eyes when that person wins acting awards.

Goodange: This is the first I’m hearing of 5urprise, so, I just looked it up. LOL. I guess it’s a group that did the opposite of other idols: The members debuted as actors first, acting together in a short mobile drama, and then, they expanded their résumé as idols. As Tess said, they’re dropping their first album this year.

As for idols who’ve succeeded as actors, I agree with the obvious ones you’ve all mentioned. Even with her passable skills, I’d also consider Suzy as a successful actress. She’s done maybe one supporting role (“Big“), but she’s been a lead in everything else. With her popularity, she should be slated to headline more projects, much like Kim Hyun Joong if his scandal hadn’t derailed those chances.



Rinchan: The idol actresses on my short list are IU, Jung Eun Ji, and Soo Young. I feel these girls are either talented or have great potential. I fell in love with their acting instantly. What irritates me are actors in general that try to protect their image even while they are playing another character. Some seem to refuse to have versatile reactions on screen and just settle for wide-eyed expressions, as if furrowing their brow for the job will leave permanent wrinkles. LMAO. These girls though have done a good job in fully immersing themselves in their characters and are capable of expressing a breadth of emotions that resonates well with their audience.

Tessieroo: Agree! Eun Ji has become a favorite, but my list is fairly short, too. It only includes her, Lee Joon, Yoon Eun Hye, Rain and Lee Seung Gi. That’s it! LOL.

Clockwatcher: From the current crop, I like Seo In Guk. He’s considered an idol, right? There’s also something about CNBLUE’s Kang Min Hyuk that I like, and he seems to be doing well in the smaller roles he’s done. I enjoyed GLAM’s Da Hee as Kim Na Na on “Monstar” and wanted to see more of her, but that’s a pipe dream at this point.

Goodange: I definitely like Jung Eun Ji and Yoon Eun Hye. I also love Han Groo. She meant to start as an actress, but while she was waiting for projects, she debuted as a K-Pop singer at her agency’s suggestion. Her time as an idol was short-lived, and since starring in “Girl K,” all her energy’s been concentrated on her acting career. I’m a fan because her acting is so accessible, and she can switch between expressions with so much ease.

I also like CNBLUE’s Kang Min Hyuk and Jung Yonghwa, though the latter could still use a pinch on his bum just to bring out more emotion on his face. I am impressed by Yonghwa’s determination to learn everything he can to improve, but I hope that would someday include challenging himself as a character actor.



Rinchan: Aside from PR, one aspect that I feel might attract idols to acting is the longevity it offers. The chances of today’s idols putting out albums when they’re older, like Seo Taiji, are very unlikely. And because beauty fades with age, they can’t count on CFs forever; however, even after reaching a certain age, ajussi/ajumma and halmoni/haraboji roles will be waiting for them. Obviously, it is not the only option they have; they could follow in the footsteps of JYP or YG, but not everyone is business-savvy.

Tessieroo: I’m not entirely against idols being given a chance, but I do wish there were some time spent on acting lessons, and maybe before they’re thrown in a drama, an honest professional opinion about their abilities should be considered. If that first acting gig turns out badly, I also wish they’d either go back for more training or stop! Why some continue to be thrust in dramas when pretty much no one believes they can act is what turns me off.

Clockwatcher: I agree with you. I have no problem with idols acting, considering I don’t even know most of them till they make their way into a show or film. My only issue is when they are tossed into roles they don’t deserve and bring down the quality of the drama. If they are entry-level, they should hone their talents in acting class, on sitcoms, or playing bit characters till they earn the right to carry a whole show. What I would like is for idols to not lead dramas till they’ve proven themselves.

Goodange: I’m with you all. If the opportunity is there to be a drama lead, it would be hard to turn down, but whoever their handlers are, they should be honest with their idols about the challenges of being in that role. I’d like to see them encourage their idols to start small, and if they’re serious about a longterm acting career, then, yes, lessons are a must. Maybe they could even find a mentor in one of the best and admired veterans who could help guide them.

It would also be ideal if a drama’s production team didn’t cast idols solely for their built-in audience, but if that’s the producers’ intention, then, they should invest in an acting bootcamp for their inexperienced or acting-deficient recruits. LOL. The audience is owed a solid drama and good actors, not just hot bodies.

Rinchan: Well said! However, when we consider how packed an idol’s schedule is, it is very likely that not much time is made for acting classes. I recall Im Siwan saying that he could only get in a couple of hours of acting classes, and that was it. I think he is one of the more talented idol actors, but we can guess from this that other idols share a similar situation. It’s likely that it can’t be helped, but if companies don’t want them to take more acting classes, then they should take smaller roles and learn from the veterans on site. Also, I really need the idols to forget about their image while acting and just be the character.

Clockwatcher: To conclude, fans love to see their idols spread their wings, but we only love those that can act. We understand that an idol’s career has an expiration date, so, they need to transition to something else if they want to remain in entertainment, but it doesn’t mean the rest of us have to suffer for it. If an idol wants to be taken seriously as an actor, he needs to put in the work and polish his craft before going for big roles.

Thank you for joining us for this round table! Let us know what you think about idol actors you like, idols you wish would act, those you wish would just stick to singing, and everything else!

Catch us again next time when we talk about May-December romance in dramas!

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